Two Maine Statesmen
Two recent biographies illuminate the character and courage of Maine Senators Fessenden and Reed.
By Stephen May
Thoroughly researched and well written, Robert J. Cook’s Civil War Senator: William Pitt Fessenden and the Fight to Save the American Republic (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; hardcover; 316 pages; $48) and James Grant’s Mr. Speaker! The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, The Man Who Broke the Filibuster (Simon & Schuster, New York, New York; hardcover; 427 pages; $28) offer insights into the lives, times, politics, and crises of two remarkable Mainers who made a difference.
Born out of wedlock in New Hampshire while his father, later a lawyer, was a student at Dartmouth College, Fessenden (1806-1869) was raised by female relatives and his stepmother in Maine. Reed (1839-1902) was born and raised in Portland, son of a fisherman. Both men graduated from Bowdoin College; Reed borrowed two hundred dollars from Fessenden, a family friend, to pay his tuition and roomed with the senator’s son, who was later killed in the Civil War. Each was admitted to the Bar, served in the State Legislature, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Both maintained homes in Portland — Fessenden on State Street and Reed on Deering.
Both fervent Republicans, each man was known for integrity, intellect, and debating skills — and for seizing every opportunity for political advancement. Elected to the U.S. Senate, Fessenden chaired the crucial Senate Finance Committee, deftly financing the Civil War, and headed the Joint Committee on Reconstruction that sought to impose fair terms on the defeated South. Reed became the all-powerful Speaker of the House, who reformed the rules to get things done. Each man was prominently mentioned as a presidential candidate, but neither actively pursued that goal.
Fessenden, who served briefly and reluctantly as President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury before returning to the Senate, helped devise the Union grand strategy, and fashioned effective cooperation between Congress and the president. Lean, gaunt, stiff, brainy, and a strong abolitionist, the Mainer was a peerless debater who commanded respect on both sides of the aisle. As a centrist, however, he clashed with Senator Charles Sumner and other Radical Republicans bent on wreaking revenge on the South after the war. Fessenden approved his party’s break with President Johnson over the latter’s “general cussedness,” dismissive view of Congress, and overly lenient Reconstruction policies, but courageously voted against impeaching Johnson, feeling he had not committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors” mandated by the Constitution.
Reed was known for his parliamentary skills, intelligence, calm under pressure, belief in majority rule, and sardonic wit. He became a leading figure in House debates over tariffs, monetary policy, and parliamentary reform. As Grant observes, “modernity was Reed’s cause,” and in his time, the major obstacle to legislative movement in the House was the “disappearing quorum,” a venerable tradition by which members, even if physically present, were not counted if they did not respond when their names were called, thus leaving the House powerless to proceed. When Reed became Speaker in 1889, he pushed through rules whereby members on the floor were counted in the quorum, expediting consideration of legislation. Ruling with an iron hand and many witticisms, the imposing Speaker, who stood six feet two inches and weighed more than 250 pounds, was called “Czar” Reed: “In parliamentary finesse and imagination,” writes Grant, “he was among the greatest speakers.”
Always a loyal Republican, and one who loathed war and American expansionism, Reed split with his party over plans to go to war with Spain and resigned from Congress. “I have tried,” he said, “to make the acts of my public life accord with my conscience, and I cannot now do this thing.” The situation, writes Grant, “brought out . . . the best in him.”
Both men died not long after the high points of their careers, and are interred in Portland’s Evergreen Cemetery, where Fessenden’s burial site is unmarked, an omission long overdue for correction. Today, Portland honors Fessenden with William, Pitt, and Fessenden streets, and Reed with an historical marker on his Deering Street home and a statue on the Western Promenade.
Cook, who teaches American history at the University of Sussex in England, tends to get bogged down in extended examinations of Fessenden’s involvement in political disputes of the day, and employs some awkward British phrases. Some readers’ eyes will glaze over when Grant, a financial analyst, riffs at length about monetary and trade policies. Overall, each author effectively immerses readers in the tenor of the times, though one would like to have learned more about Fessenden and Reed’s wives and family life.
Quibbles aside, these are welcome, revelatory, and insightful explorations of two exceptional elected officials whose honesty, skill, tenacity, and courage made them the most important congressional figures of their day. These books should help make Fessenden and Reed the household names they deserve to be, at least in Maine.